December 9, 2012

Brown boxes feed those in need in the Midlands

When the squash and sweet potatoes started spilling out of Heather Hardy’s Irmo living room and into the driveway, she and business partner Karen Hedgepath knew they needed to find another place to sort fruits and vegetables.

When the squash and sweet potatoes started spilling out of Heather Hardy’s Irmo living room and into the driveway, she and business partner Karen Hedgepath knew they needed to find another place to sort fruits and vegetables.

The women a year ago started a small business, Brown Box Veggies, to help bring farm fresh produce to Midlands-area families.

“It just kind of grew to where we couldn’t sort out of my living room and driveway anymore,” Hardy said.

Today, the women are sorting produce in a spot at the South Carolina Farmers Market for their growing business as more consumers look for locally grown food options.

And this Christmas, they will combine their passion for local fruits and vegetables with a desire to give back to the community. Customers can order boxes for Dec. 15 to be donated to the Mission of Hope in Cayce.

Scott Harrison, chairman of the Mission of Hope board, said weather conditions, including a severe drought in the West, have put a squeeze on the charity’s ability to provide for a growing population of people in need as economic conditions have been slow to improve.

“There’s been not enough food, plus more people in need right now,” said Harrison, a Brown Box Veggies customer who reached out to the women for leftover boxes.

The partners typically donate any boxes not picked up – usually one or two every two weeks – to the needy, but they are aiming for 100 boxes to be ordered specifically for Mission of Hope this month and hoping customers will help stuff those boxes for delivery. In addition, Hardy and Hedgepath plan to donate $5 to the charity for every box ordered.

Both women have long had a passion for local produce because it’s fresher and more nutritious. For example, the beets that were packed into the boxes for the first weekend in December were picked Friday morning and packed Friday night, Hardy said.

Hardy belonged to a food co-op for about 10 years before she decided to branch off and create her own small business, selling brown cardboard boxes filled with fruits and vegetables. After she asked Hedgepath to create a website for Brown Box Veggies, the business partnership grew.

Hedgepath, of Lexington, also has roots in produce so helping run the business came naturally. She grew up on a farm in Florence with chickens, cows, goats and even honey bees. When harvest time came around, she shucked corn, peeled butter beans, “you name it,” she said.

Now, the ladies – who both also have full-time jobs – work together to get fresh, local produce into Columbia homes. Hardy works at a law firm in Columbia and Hedgepath owns Pegasus Web Productions with her husband.

For Brown Box Veggies, Hardy is in charge of selecting the produce and finding the best deals. Hedgepath manages the website, Facebook page and other administrative work.

They both pack boxes.

Two Fridays a month they sort vegetables and stuff almost 150 boxes with their families for four to five hours at the Jackson Farms location in the South Carolina State Farmers Market.

They are particular about how they pack boxes to ensure the produce remains intact and does not bruise. The heavy vegetables like eggplant and cabbage go on the bottom and lighter fruits like pears and apples rest on the other items.

On Saturday mornings from 9:30 to 11:30, customers pick up their boxes at one of five locations across the Midlands: the Ole Timey Meat Market locations in Lexington, Northeast or Rosewood; Elite Personal Training in Irmo; or Northside Christian Academy in Lexington.

Each box costs $22 and must be preordered online at brownboxveggies.com. Hardy price-checked the sum of the produce equivalent to what goes into a box at a grocery store and the grocery store’s produce was about $15 more than a brown box, she said.

The company has grown as consumers have pushed for more locally grown options.

“More and more people are wanting to know where their food comes from,” said Kelly Coakley, S.C. Department of Agriculture public information director.

The growth in the movement can be seen in the SCDA Certified South Carolina Grown program, which launched 2007 to encourage residents in the state to buy local produce and products, Coakley said.

It started with 60 participating producers and farmers and five years later has more than 1,300 participating farmers, producers and specialty food producers, she said.

But Hardy has always supported eating healthy and buying local.

“We know where it’s been grown, how it’s been grown and how it got into our boxes,” she said.

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